Infographic and Article by: Lauren Foisy and Maxine Morris
From its humble beginnings as a decommissioned U.S. Navel Torpedo Station, at the time of its purchase in 1969, to its present day successes as an art center, the Torpedo Factory Art Center (TFAC) is an inspirational model of how art and culture can positively influence the economic value of a city. As a major tourist attraction situated on Alexandria, Virginia’s Potomac River waterfront, the Torpedo Factory served as an initial anchor for the revitalization of the lower King Street area. By contributing to the image of the City of Alexandria as a sophisticated community with vibrant cultural options, the Torpedo Factory has repeatedly helped Alexandria to make the list of top art destinations in the United States, and win numerous prestigious awards. It stands as a cultural example of how the arts have a positive impact in sustaining its home community, making it a pioneer in the realm of creative placemaking.
While the idea of an artist colony is not unique today, at the time when the City of Alexandria purchased the debris-filled abandoned station/storage complex from the government in 1969, it was a somewhat unique proposition that the arts could impact its local community economically. This was especially apparent because the community back then was thought of as a predominantly industrial neighborhood, according to CEO Eric Wallner, during an interview with him on February 10, 2014. Since it opened in 1974 as a collection of artists’ studios and galleries, TFAC has functioned as a valuable resource for arts education, and has played an innovative and strategic role in the progressive development of Old Town Alexandria.
Ranked one of 2013 America’s top Art Places, it is home to over 160 professional artists who work, exhibit, and sell their art as “Artists-in-Residence.” Within the Art Center there are 82 working artists’ studios, 6 art galleries, 2 workshops, The Art League School and Gallery, and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Artists work in a wide variety of media including painting, ceramics, photography, jewelry, stained glass, fiber, printmaking, and sculpture. Open 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, visitors from all over the world are invited and welcomed into one or all of the 82 artists’ studios where they can experience the creative process first hand by watching artists at work, ask questions, and purchase original art. The open studio format is unique to the Torpedo Art factory as intended by the Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association (TFAA) whose mission is: “Working Artists + Open Studios”. An Artist-in-Residence at the Torpedo Factory seconded the mission’s sentiment by stating:
“We provide the real, the hands on, the hand made. This is what people want today.”
Opening the creative process to visitors is one of the reasons that the Torpedo Factory has maintained its status as the number one tourist attraction for the City of Alexandria. A recent visitor to the Art Center was quoted as saying:
“The Torpedo Factory is truly special because it’s not just a museum or gallery where you can look at art, it gets you involved.”
The Art Center promotes interpersonal engagement through promotion of the arts and creates economic value through cooperation with over 1,000 cooperative gallery members and some 2,000 art students. According to Eric Wallner, Torpedo Factory CEO:
“Many of the original artists at the Factory are still active and engaged with younger artists; there is a generational connection that ensures the center’s vital role in the community.”
The robust arts scene in Alexandria has a direct economic impact on the city, and helps grow the industry. The Torpedo Factory welcomes approximately 550,000 global visitors annually, providing the community with direct economic rewards. With studies reflecting that cultural travelers stay longer and spend more, the City of Alexandria’s non-profit Arts Industry generated a whopping $70.7 million for the city (directly through items purchased at the Torpedo Factory Art Galleries or Art Studios, and indirectly through visitors who patronized a local restaurant or one of the many small boutique shops), providing profits and support for the city’s businesses. The arts and culture environment creates a place where businesses want to be for the long-term, and as that place becomes more active, commerce is likely to respond, giving people even more reason to be there.
2014 celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Torpedo Factory Arts Center, and the center shows no sign in slowing down. Under the helm of the new CEO, Eric Wallner and operating under the clear mandate of one of the of the Torpedo Factory’s Mission Goal: “To continue the TFAC’s critical role in supporting the City of Alexandria’s economic well being, drawing visitors and residents to our streets and our retail and commercial establishments,” the center continues its active involvement in outreach programs and annual social events that have a positive impact on their citizens, while constantly seeking new ways to improve and bring greater value to the city. As such, The Torpedo Factory has continually served as a source of inspiration and a prototype for development and implementation of numerous visual arts facilities throughout U.S. and by extension, the world.
All places have creative potential, and the City of Alexandria acted upon the opportunity by investing in the idea that the arts could contribute to the “wealth of the community through art and culture”. The city has demonstrated that when a visionary team, a collaborative city government, and artists and educators join together, ready to roll up their sleeves for a shared vision, anything is possible through careful and strategic thinking. Building on the arts and culture within a city or community, we can begin to strengthen the social fabric, and establish successful creative placemaking, with art at the center of planning, execution, and activity, as the Torpedo Factory has demonstrated to us so well.
About the Authors:
Originally from Boston, MA, Lauren has her B.S. in Interior Design from Endicott College. She has worked at Jacobs Engineering for the past seven years as an architectural, interior, and sustainable designer. Her experience spans several market sectors including retail, restaurant, transportation, mixed-use, as well as, corporate interiors. With an interest in business development, design strategy, and communications, she is currently enrolled in the Design Management Program at Pratt, where she hopes to continue her endless curiosity and desire to learn, while being a dynamic and effective designer.
Maxine Morris is a multidisciplinary Art Director and Creative Strategist, based in Washington D.C. Leveraging her background in Visual Media Communication, Maxine has managed media design and production operations as an in-house creative services manager and as a design consultant.
She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Design Management at Pratt Institute, where the program’s Triple Bottom Line by Design plus Culture (TBLD+C) strategic framework aligns with her passion to create “Designs that Build Awareness and Inspire Action”.